The increase in global food prices has been triggered by poor harvests in the US and in parts of Eastern Europe, as well as by the increasing use of corn to produce ethanol biofuel; in the US, this now takes 40% of corn production. For key grains such as corn and wheat, prices have risen by 25% from June to July this year.
Such dramatic increases are described by the World Bank as “historic” and the organisation is warning that developing countries which rely on the import of food will be particularly affected. The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, has urged governments to boost programmes which help protect their most vulnerable communities from the increasing cost of food. In a BBC article, Mr Kim is quoted as saying “we cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for the high prices”. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are particularly exposed. Already, the World Bank reports that maize prices have increased 113% over the past quarter in Mozambique.
In neighbouring Malawi, poor maize harvests following prolonged spells of dry weather have also created widespread food shortages. New assessments of the situation estimate that more than 1.6 million Malawians (over 10% of the population) will be in need of food assistance in central and southern districts over the coming months. While the situation has arisen mainly because of poor local harvests, a recent devaluation of the local currency has also triggered price increases in basic supplies, including maize.
One smallholder in central Malawi told the news agency IRIN that her land had produced “less than a bag of maize” after her whole crop withered. With eight children to support, plus three children of relatives in her care, she has no idea how her family is going to survive until the next harvest. Poor households in urban centres are also affected, since the price of maize has more than doubled.
The Malawi government has appealed for international support. However, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), so far only 18 million dollars of the 89 million requested has been raised. Some food is already being distributed by the World Food Programme and also by the Malawi government, with assistance from the UK’s Department for International Development, which has donated nearly 5 million dollars to cover transport and distribution costs for relief food supplies. USAID has also given nearly 8 million dollars. But with the seriousness of the situation in Malawi becoming apparent, and with many other developing countries facing similar hardship, many in the international community are calling for urgent action on food prices.